“Ever since we were primitive[s] sitting around campfires, we’ve been telling stories to each other, and listening to each other tell stories to each other,” a designer for Dungeons & Dragons told Neima Jahromi for The New Yorker. While the mythologized nostalgia (and perhaps a whiff of self-indulgent marketing) is apparent, the quote nevertheless articulates a key component in the recent resurgence of roleplaying games: the drive to collectively tell stories and make art to strengthen social ties.
The tired cultural tug-of-war around “are games art?” notwithstanding, roleplaying games can be viewed as collective, narrative-focused and participatory art-making projects. In particular, live action roleplay (LARP) can be considered quintessentially so. Marquee events often feature dozens (if not hundreds) of participants crafting elaborate, spontaneous plotlines while immersed in highly-produced sets and costumes. Creation – of history, of character, of narrative, of emotion – forms the warp and weft of LARP. LARPing is the unspooling of an improvised narrative and the weaving of these story threads not only through a host of characters whose actions are unpredictable, but also around the players embodying them, who possess their own unique drives and aims. The resulting tapestry is thus wholly creative and inescapably communal.
The benefits of such communal arts, in terms of building social cohesion and feelings of community, are well-documented, multi-hued and myriad. It would be trivial to simply state that LARP helps build community simply by virtue of being an artistic practice involving co-creation, because LARPs delve deeper. They allow and encourage players to create separate and novel art within their narrative. They serve as a fabric onto which players can embroider personal, original art, resulting in layered fabrics of art-making that players can don, concentrating and focusing the benefits of participatory arts.
Sharang Biswas is a game designer, writer and artist based in New York City. He has a particular love of roleplaying, interactive storytelling and immersive theater. Follow him on Twitter @SharangBiswas. Header photo by Verena Dahmen, used via Creative Commons license.